I live in Western Massachusetts, in a small town with a rich history of liberal thought and also manufacturing. I have a large and level yard with good sun exposure and I love to garden. But I’ve been reluctant to grow food in my yard, and the more I think about long-ago regional industrial activities, and also current effects from everyday traffic and snow clearing, the more convinced I’ve become that my yard will never be safe for growing food.
Searchlight New Mexico has published an article on the unfixable environmental contamination of a large dairy farm in Clovis, New Mexico. PFAS in flame suppressant foams, used during exercises at a neighboring Air Force base, migrated into the farm’s water supply. The farmer, Art Schaap, has shut down dairy production and will be euthanizing his 1,800 cows. The article makes clear that for many years contaminated milk entered the regional food supply, unbeknownst to Mr. Schaap and local regulators.
Mr. Schaap talks of watching the Air Force spray the PFAS-laden foams during its maneuvers and drills for years. One of his water wells, the one with the worst contamination, is next to the fence for the base. Mr. Schaap is now facing ruin at different levels including possibly dire health effects to himself and his wife. I’m not blaming him for his own misfortunes, but it should have been commonsensically obvious that there were health hazards from these particular Air Force activities so close to a dairy farm.
I’m inclined to view urban food farming the same way. It is wonderful to imagine school children, inner city dwellers, retirees, taking an abandoned lot and turning it into a community garden. We’ve all seen the pictures of happy people achieving a measure of food security from gardening on neglected land close to urban centers. These gardens are a bad idea. We cannot rely on the government to properly test and regulate the spread of toxins that can damage us and our children. We cannot even rely on science, so much of which has become beholden to commercial interests. We must rely on caution and our own common sense.
My common sense is telling me that in addition to settled particulate from traffic, when the snow from my street is plowed onto the sidewalk and from there snow-blown onto my yard, toxins enter the soil. They join the toxins probably already in the soil, since the history of towns and cities is a history of people dumping garbage and then building on it. Also, humans move bad soil around, and toxic chemicals migrate.
I do not have faith that current soil testing methods are adequate to determine soil safety. These methods may be able to isolate certain notorious contaminants, but what of the other hundreds if not thousands of chemicals that have been used willy-nilly for generations in urban centers? Or are blown in from surrounding farms or industry? I’m not saying that if you have a few tomato plants, you are definitely poisoning your children. Instead I’m encouraging far more skepticism and caution than people generally exhibit with respect to this deeply sad and unfortunate commonsense truth. Just because the plants look healthy and the vegetables are tasty, doesn’t mean that there aren’t dangerous compounds in the soil that are then in the food.